Turkey’s quagmire: ISIS on the doorstep, PKK in the house

The notion that Ankara would prefer ISIS on its border as opposed to the PKK is heavily disputed

Brooklyn Middleton
Brooklyn Middleton - Special to Al Arabiya News
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Ankara’s failure to intervene militarily in the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane - where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues advancing - has fomented deadly unrest domestically and heightened diplomatic tensions internationally.

Days of clashes have left at least 35 people dead with the majority of violence erupting between rival groups as well as with security forces across Turkey’s Kurdish south east. At the same time, the fragility of the ceasefire between Turkish security forces and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been exposed.

Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan openly vowed to end the ceasefire if ISIS carries out a “massacre” against Kurds in the war-struck border town. Less than one week after that threat was issued, Turkey military aerially targeted PKK positions near the Iraqi border, retaliating for several consecutive days of sustained gunfire targeting one of their outposts.

“For us,” said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “the PKK is the same as ISIS.” His administration’s recent policy decisions on Syria and the PKK mirror that statement.

It can be argued that Turkey’s inaction in Kobane is predicated largely on security considerations and the potential long-term consequences of aiding a group it has only recently maintained a tenuous ceasefire with. In an interview with Al Arabiya news, London based Turkish analyst Ziya Meral indicated that Ankara “has been aware of the serious implications of any direct military engagement in a truly fragmented conflict with no end at sight, and a 900 km border which exposes Turkey to humanitarian and security liabilities.” Meral pointed out that Turkey has also not intervened military during the Syrian conflict, “even when its own fighter jet was shut down and chemical weapons were used and its own diplomats were taken captive.”

Moreover, with Turkey long bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis – current U.N. figures indicate at least 869,500 Syrians have fled to the nation - domestic opinion does not largely favor Ankara intervening.

“The Turkish public does not want further involvement in Syria and hosting of any more refugees. And Turkey’s international allies are not offering any long term commitment both to Syria and Turkey to handle the burdens and outcomes of intervening.” Meral said. At the same time, the vast majority of the country is adamantly anti-ISIS, with some surveys indicating that “almost 90 percent of Turkish public do not have favorable views of ISIS,” Meral continued.

Louis Fishman, assistant professor at Brooklyn College and analyst on Turkey and Middle East Affairs, also indicated to Al Arabiya News that the Turkish intervention in Kobane could “have numerous implications in terms of their national security setting precedence into cross-border operations.” But, Fishman noted, “for many Kurds it has become obvious that Turkey is perfectly reconcilable to having ISIS take over the border town. What we saw was a Turkey that embarked on an aggressive campaign to delegitimize the PYD forces. For many of Turkey’s Kurds this was nothing short of betrayal by Erdogan and Davutoglu whose government has been taking courageous steps to reach an historic peace agreement since 2005, together with the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. In short, this campaign by the Turkish government to equate PYD/PKK with ISIS was equal to throwing salt on the open wounds of Kobane.”

In regard to security ramifications of Turkey working with Kurdish fighters, Fishman said, “Turkey is right to be concerned with a proliferation of arms and power within the Kurdish forces, but it seems its fears were exaggerated and that their failed policy in Kobane only lead a loyal Kurdish population to the depths of despair.”

The notion that Ankara would prefer ISIS on its border as opposed to the PKK is one that Meral disputes, pointing out that Ankara moved to formally list ISIS as a terror group last year. “Even before then ISIS militants were clashing with groups backed by Turkey and increasingly threatening Turkey and calling it an ‘apostate’ state.”

The reality is that ISIS will inevitably target Turkey - a nation with a history already marked by terrorist attacks. “Sooner or later, ISIS will be a major direct threat for Turkey and instability on Turkish borders and such a radical group will create more problems,” Meral said.

But Turkey could have better aided Kurdish forces in Kobane to prevent the ISIS onslaught, possibly providing intelligence and facilitating the ease of border crossing, Fishman asserted; had they, he said, “this dire situation could have been diverted.”
In regard to the U.S.-led coalition’s nebulous long-term strategy in Iraq and Syria, Ankara’s reluctance to intervene in Kobane is predicated on a two-fold reasoning; on the one hand, the Turkish government has remained consistently against any military cooperation that could provide either a direct or de-facto boost to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

On the other, Turkey, much unlike the U.S. or other nations in the coalition, will inevitably bear the long term consequences of a strengthened Assad and/or ISIS.

“Turkey is prepared to take on ISIS parallel to the toppling of Assad. However, it seems safe to say that any major Turkish campaign would embark on in Syria could cause an even greater regional fallout, with little hope of replacing Assad with a more stable regime,” said Fishman.

Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition have clearly hit a stalemate; as Ankara refuses intervention that does not directly address the ousting of Assad, the U.S. refuses to support Turkey’s proposal of a buffer zone. “A key aspect of the buffer zone Turkey demands is about hosting new refugees within Syria in a safe zone, which U.S. does not want to pursue. Thus, Ankara sees the U.S. and its allies having a willy-nilly commitment to root out ISIS and leaving Turkey alone to cope with all of its consequences,” said Meral.

While tensions between the PKK and Turkish security forces continue to rise, to assert the fall of Kobane to ISIS would trigger the end of the ceasefire entirely would be premature, the analysts indicated. “Ultimately, Kurds need the peace talks as much as Turks. PYD/PKK losses against ISIS shows the reality, that just like Iraqi KRG, a Syrian KRG needs good relations with Turkey,” Meral noted. Fishman too said that the official end of the ceasefire is not inevitable, so long as Ankara proves quickly capable of quelling recent heightened tensions.

“These past few days [have been] ample proof that there is a genuine need for peace and without it things could get much worse,” he said.

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